Harvard’s Decision to Rescind Acceptances is Not About Social Media

Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.

According to the Harvard Crimson, which first reported this controversy last week, at least ten prospective freshmen involved in posting objectionable material to a Facebook group have had their acceptances to Harvard revoked.

The official Harvard Facebook group for the Class of 2021 did give a warning to students saying the page was managed by the school’s College Admissions & Financial Aid Office and was meant to "meet your classmates, share where you're coming from, ask questions, keep in touch."

“We are not responsible for any unofficial groups, chats, or the content within. As a reminder, Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character,” the description on the Facebook page reads (emphasis added).

The news of Harvard’s decision spread quickly and predictably.

The students were labeled “stupid.” Experts reminded students of the “dangers” of posting to social media. Harvard was accused of violating the “First Amendment” and of invading the privacy of the jettisoned students. All sexy headlines that completely missed the point.

This is a story of character. End of story.

People are still surprised by the weight character plays in elite college admissions. Just read Harvard’s “What We Look For” web page. Here are some highlights:

“In our admissions process, we give careful, individual attention to each applicant. We seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.”

“What sort of human being are you now? What sort of human being will you be in the future?”

“How open are you to new ideas and people?”

“What about your maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure?”

Colleges want to enroll good citizens and social media is a window into their character.

Perhaps the scrutiny has a constructive side. For most teenagers, social-networking sites and tools are a way to fashion and distribute their best selves -- best, that is, in the eyes of their peers. The party pictures, boastful expression, bullying and indiscreet revelations are there to impress friends and peers, and many teen users don’t realize that the norms of adolescence sometimes repel grown-ups.

If students expect a college administrator or employer to look at their posts to form an opinion of them, they’ll alter the presentation. As application deadlines near, aspiring students will consider publishing chronicles of their charity work, community service, family life, commentaries on current events, interests, and other bits and bytes to engage the reviewers.

Let's not forget our social media presence reflects upon the reputation of the groups and organizations we represent whether they be our schools, our employers, our clubs, our associations. Therefore, the lines between personal and professional are blurred as our personal lives, activities, and beliefs as found on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter attach to and impact the reputation of the institutions we represent.

This is just one more reason to take care of your social media because it defines who you are and how you will be perceived by others, as well as show your college and career readiness level. Elements of responsible digital leadership must be taken seriously and permeate throughout all our online activities. 

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